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What is a Ghazal?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A ghazal is a type of poetic form. This form originated in Iran in the sixth century CE, and spread across the Middle East and as far as Southeast Asia. Ghazals can be recited, spoken, or sung, with many popular Persian and Middle Eastern singers performing ghazals as part of their repertoire. Some Sufi poets have also explored this form, and while classical ghazals are usually in Arabic or Persian, this form can be used in any language.

The rules of the ghazal form are fairly simple. A ghazal includes a set of no more than 15 and no less than five rhyming couplets known as sher. Traditionally, each sher is like a miniature poem in itself, and the second line of each sher in a ghazal includes a refrain, which may consist of a single word or several. The refrain is known as the “radif.” As a general rule, the meter of a ghazal remains consistent throughout the whole poem.

Depending on how poets use the radif, the rhyming scene of a ghazal can vary. It may be, for example, in the form of AA BA CA DA EA and so forth, in AA AA AA AA AA form, or poets may play with other rhymes, such as AA BA AA CA AA. The rhyming scheme is generally adjusted to meet the needs of the poet and the radif, and the composer of a ghazal may also think about how the poem will sound if sung or spoken when considering the rhyme scheme.

Traditionally, ghazals are used for themes of love and loss. Often a ghazal describes an unattainable, absent, or separated love. While people may use this form for other themes, such works are not, strictly speaking, true ghazals, because they lack the traditional thematic framework of the ghazal. Thanks to the clear, yet flexible rules of the ghazal, poets can express themselves in a variety of ways with this poetic form.

Many classical writers from the Middle East wrote ghazal, and the form continues to be widely used today. The language of ghazals tends to be simple and clear, yet haunting, reminding the reader of themes like suffering and loss as well as love. Works of Arabic poetry often include some very excellent examples of this poetic form, and ghazals are also regularly performed across the Middle East, in both private homes and public venues.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By fify — On Mar 28, 2011

I like to think of ghazal as the mother of qawwali, which is mystical or religious music sung by Muslims and Sufis.

I had to ask my Arabic teacher to figure out the meaning of ghazal, which apparently refers to a lover speaking to a beloved. In ghazal, it's usually a romantic love. But in qawwali, it's the love of God. So both are basically the same art form, just the topic is a bit different.

By ddljohn — On Mar 26, 2011

I went to school in the Middle East for a while when my parents worked there. This article brings back some memories! We used to dread studying ghazals in reading and writing classes because the language was so difficult to understand. The most famous authors of ghazal had written on love, women, wine and nature like a century ago and used Arabic and Farsi words that were unknown to our generation.

Not only did we have to decipher their meanings but we had to memorize a ghazal for class as well. I find myself reading ghazal poetry from time to time now. But I was just too young at that time to understand the beauty and meaning of Ghazal poems.

By anon90146 — On Jun 14, 2010

The Ghazal originated in Arabia.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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